With October fast approaching, over 50 percent of Americans will see at least one scary movie during the month of ghouls and goblins.
Horror is big business. Last week, Stephen King’s It made box office history with a $117.2 million opening weekend, the largest September debut in history.
In a sense, that wasn’t a surprise. Over the last decade, well-done horror films like The Ring, Paranormal Activity, and The Conjuring have launched successful franchises—often with lackluster sequels—and shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story have found broad audiences.
The popularity of the garish and disconcerting leads to an interesting question: Why is horror so popular? Fear is, after all, an unpleasant feeling.
So how do films succeed when they set out to shock and terrify their audiences?
Brain chemistry seems to play a significant role.
As Dr. Margee Kerr of Robert Morris University told The Atlantic, people differ in their chemical responses to scary situations.
“One of the main hormones released during scary and thrilling activities is dopamine, and it turns out some individuals may get more of a kick from this dopamine response than others do,” Kerr says.
Some people don’t get the same kick, so they don’t end up enjoying the fight-or-flight response triggered by a truly horrifying scene. Interestingly, people who enjoy scary movies tend to experience more autonomic arousal (in other words, more of a physical response) than the people who don’t enjoy them.
Psychiatrist Steven Schlozman of Harvard Medical School says that thrill seekers who enjoy scary movies love tapping into their fight-or-flight response. However, they’re also training their brains to recognize patterns and to react to changes in those patterns.
As an example, he conjures the image of a cute puppy; show the picture to a group of people, and they’ll fawn over it. Photoshop a pair of cat’s eyes onto the dog, however, and you’ll elicit a completely different response.
“Now you are messing with pattern recognition,” Schlozman says. “You have two recognizable patterns that don’t belong in the same picture, and that freaks people out.”
In this clip, psychologist Dr. Lynne Kenney discusses the involvement of the autonomic nervous system and explores why you might even writhe or twitch during the scariest scenes:
Thrill seekers enjoy these experiences since they’re able to work through fear and survival patterns in a safe environment while feeling just uneasy enough.
“Each time you verge more toward the uncanny, [those] folks get the feeling in their gut that things aren’t right, and the more fun they have,” Schlozman says.
People may dislike scary movies if they’ve had high-impact experiences with horror.
Kerr says that people need to know that they’re in a safe environment in order to enjoy a good scare.
“I’ve talked to more than a handful of people who will never set foot in a haunted house because they went to a haunt at a young age and were traumatized,” Kerr says. “The chemicals that are released during fight-or-flight can work like glue to build strong memories [called] flashbulb memories of scary experiences, and if you’re too young to know the monsters are fake, it can be quite traumatic and something you’ll never forget, in a bad way.”
There you have it: If you love scary movies, it’s likely due to a combination of brain chemistry and your previous experiences with the genre. You know that you’re safe and you’re ready to challenge your brain with an unexpected set of patterns—while enjoying a nice dopamine rush with every jump and shriek.
If you hate scary movies, however, your brain might put the brakes on that dopamine rush. You might not feel truly safe, particularly if you had a bad experience with a frightening flick in your younger years.